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Tul Niroula Bridges Cultures for Winooski Schools


Published September 13, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Tul Niroula

Name: Tul Niroula
Town: Burlington
Job: Home-school liaison at Winooski School District

Tul Niroula's greatest strength is arguably his adaptability. The son of a Hindu priest, he attended a government-run boarding school in his native country of Bhutan and read Buddhist scriptures as part of his daily routine.

In the refugee camp in Maidar, Nepal, where Niroula lived for several months, he taught math under a tree because there were no school buildings.

Almost a decade later, after he received a scholarship from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees to pursue a degree in education, Niroula found employment in Catholic schools in India. There, he not only taught math but cited Biblical scriptures during "moral education" lessons.

Despite his extensive experience in teaching, Niroula, 44, had a different passion. "I wanted to become a doctor," he said. "It was really hard for us to make our dreams come true."

Niroula had hoped to get a government scholarship to continue his education overseas. Instead, he and his family fled to a refugee camp in Nepal after they were stripped of their Bhutanese citizenship in the early 1990s. After spending more than two decades as a refugee, Niroula and his family were resettled in Vermont in 2013.

These days, Niroula is a home-school liaison for the Winooski School District, meaning he's the bridge between Nepali- and Hindi-speaking parents and their children's American teachers.

"I have a lot of relationships with the parents," said Niroula. "They cannot run the school without the home-school liaisons."

Niroula's responsibilities include translating school documents, interpreting during parent-teacher conferences and providing in-class support to English-language learners. He also helps parents and teachers navigate differing cultural expectations surrounding education, so that students can succeed. He took the time from a busy schedule to answer a few questions.

SEVEN DAYS: How is the Bhutanese education system different from those in the refugee camp in Nepal and the U.S.?

TUL NIROULA: "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was the policy in Bhutan. Corporal punishment was given to students. Whatever the teacher said, the students had to listen. They were very rigid to the syllabus. Reading and learning by heart — this was the kind of system there. But here, it's about how much the child understands. Teachers work according to the child's need. It's all activity based.

Both grammar and English literature were taught in the camp. But for grammar, a formula was made by the teachers. The students used the formula in writing. But the way they speak may not be correct. Most of our children don't develop speaking skills because that was not encouraged in the schools.

SD: How did your teaching career in the Maidar refugee camp start?

TN: In January 1992, we formed a small organization. It's called the Student Union of Bhutan. We had a meeting, and we asked parents to send their children to school. We didn't have a school building or books. So we taught under a tree. There were around 3,200 students at that time.

Caritas [a Catholic nonprofit organization] came in March 1992. They brought books in a truck. A month later, the director of Caritas came. He called all the teachers and told us to make a line. Then he gave 500 rupees to each of us. It wasn't a lot of money, but at least we could buy some vegetables for a week or two.

In August 1992, I moved to Goldhap [refugee] camp. Still, we taught under trees. When it rained, all the students used to say "Jai!" [victory to the god]. After a few months, Caritas started building brick-walled and bamboo schools with metal roofs.

SD: What do you remember most about the school in the camp?

TN: We used to have a lot of competitions back in the camp — quiz competition, essay writing competition, debate, singing and dancing. We used to have an annual sports day. The whole school was divided into four houses. There would be a soccer match and badminton match. They got house points.

SD: What can schools in the U.S. learn from their Bhutanese or Indian counterparts?

TN: When I was in the Catholic school, we took students to the chapel. We started the class with a prayer, and then I would explain to the students a small part of the scriptures. They had a value education book. Some questions would be there. If you see a dog with a broken leg, or beggar, how would you help? They should have feelings for others. If nobody tells them, it might not come into their mind. Put something in their brain, [and] moral values are taught.

SD: How do you provide in-class support to English-language learners?

TN: The ELL teacher will be teaching, and I will be having my eyes on the students and sometimes explaining in their own language. Some of the newcomer students, they find it difficult to ask the teacher to go to the bathroom. They know English, but the teacher's [accent] is different.

For high school students, they have a lot of gaps [in their education]. I always tell them, "Since you have a lot of gaps, it's better you try more, work hard." They feel shy. They feel they make mistakes. They don't want to speak in English. So the learning process will be very, very slow. But at [John F. Kennedy] elementary and middle schools, they make mistakes, but they speak. They learn. A kindergartener, when he goes to fourth grade, fifth grade, he'll be speaking more English than a high school student.

SD: Have you thought about resuming your teaching career in Vermont?

TN: In the beginning, yes. I thought I should get a teaching license. But since we came from a different education background and system, it may be really hard for me. The children here act and react totally different from the children back in the camp and India.

Maybe if it's just [to teach] my community, I may become a teacher. I have [a] British-English background. Some of the words and pronunciation are different.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bridging Cultures"